Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls, and transcend race, the past and all probability. Unlike life, sport is eternal. Unlike life, sport matters.– WG Karunasena in Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman
In mid-July 2009 we are third-last on the table with five wins and a draw. The Global Financial Crisis that isn’t affecting Australia is actually affecting me – and a number of my friends. I have just been knocked back for a full-time journalist’s job, having made the final two candidates. It was the first interview I’d landed in the nearly six months since I was made redundant. I am fighting in a sack of debt, tossed in the sea. I’m struggling to pay the mortgage. But there is always the footy.
I may be hopelessly enamoured of one of the worst football teams in the land, the Parramatta Eels of the National Rugby League, but it’s as much about the ritual of meeting with friends and family over a beer and waiting for the game, analysing the ins and outs, picking apart last week’s loss. This week it’s the Titans away. We’re seated at a sticky table at the Wentworthville Leagues Club. With me is Norv and my sister – with both of whom I’ve attended more Eels games than I care to remember – and Dad, whom we somehow talked into coming out on a cold night. We need a win to just to keep an awful season interesting. ‘How’s the job hunt going?’ Norv asks me. ‘Any luck?’ Dad asks me later, separately. My sister probably pulls me aside and asks me the same question at some point. I put a positive spin on it. There is a job I applied for last Friday that I’m excited about. Anyway, I’m not here to think about all of that. I’m here to watch the footy.
We lose, of course. Only 18-12, we tell each other: that’s not a bad effort. In a season like this you come to rank the losses by severity and the team’s level of application. I find it harder than the others, though, to take this one on the chin: for me at the moment, the whole tenor of a week hinges on whether Parra get up. There is not much else to cheer about. In the post-match interviews one Eel admits the season is as good as over. ‘Melbourne at home next week,’ Norv says of our next opponent; they sit near the top of the table and have done for years. ‘They’ll be trembling after that display.’ Each of us affirms that we’ll be attending the game, although personally – and for the first time I can remember – I can’t see the point. Why subject myself to more of this, in my situation? We’re going to get thumped. It would be like throwing no money after bad. I’ll wait until later in the week and then text them all with an excuse.
But of course I go. I can’t miss Hindy’s (Parra captain, Nathan Hindmarsh) 250th game. And we even do it for the old bugger, jumping out of the blocks on a frigid Monday night and holding on for a life-shortening 18-16 win. We grab a drink back at the club, all smiles, discussing the sideline run of Eric Grothe Jr, bemoaning the ref’s dud call of six-again late in the match. And when I am home in the quiet of my room I am able to go to sleep, warm with drink and victory, deferring till the morning the crowding thoughts of job applications and dwindling finances.
Parramatta, I’ve always thought, is a good fit for me: a club of flashy players afraid of hard work; mercurial; a good frontrunner unsuited to the trenches, getting by on natural ability, stellar during the good times and frightful during the bad. Parramatta is in my blood, put there by my father and his father. Parramatta was a form of child abuse, so the old joke goes.
For Eels supporters, suffering is a watchword. It’s a funny kind of resilience, one made bearable by sporadic success. It’s not the suffering of a South Sydney fan, who has endured four decades without a premiership, portions of that with lowly teams made up of cast-offs and petty criminals; nor that of a Cronulla fan, who has never tasted success. Grand old clubs like North Sydney have been extra-judicially garrotted – collateral damage in the Super League war – their supporters left to haunt the suburban grounds of Sydney. Out at Parramatta, we have no excuses and, unlike Norths, we have a team. Our junior competitions are some of the strongest in the sport. Our club is wealthy. We are one of the best-supported teams in the competition. This probably owes to one exceptional, star-aligned era; in the 1980s we won four premierships in six years with one of the greatest club sides in history but, in the context of our overall record, it is an aberration. Not that we don’t generally perform well in the season proper: between 1997 and 2008 we won two minor premierships, reached the finals nine times, played in six preliminary finals (the penultimate game of the season) and one grand final. In each of those preliminary finals, and the grand final, we were well within our rights to win, and in each we came up short, often in heartbreaking and embarrassing circumstances. We have wilted too many times in the intense light of impending glory. Mention certain years to a Parramatta fan and watch their face slacken and turn. It’s a football club built for masochists by sadists. The sadists have worked out a delectable formula for this experiment: a team that perennially runs last is strangely never quite as psychically damaging as a team that perennially finishes near the top of the ladder but falls short of its potential. Many seasons of consistency and promise have been undone by faulty manoeuvres and brittle composure. I was at the Sydney Football Stadium in 1998 and 1999, at Homebush in 2000, 2001 and 2005. My parents were at the Sydney Cricket Ground on grand final day in 1976. Back then it had taken the club nearly 30 years to slip the binds of mediocrity and appear on the final day of the season. In those formative losing seasons my grandfather had walked my father from their home in Westmead and across the park to the old Cumberland Oval. There were good times and bad times, but never Great Times. 1976 seemed bound to change all that. The Council held a parade down Church Street the Thursday night before the game. Blue-and-gold bunting choked the windows and doors and clung to the awnings. Google ‘Neville Glover’ to see how all that turned out. There are videos.
That’s the thing: a club like Parramatta thrives on the missed chance, the might-have-been, the infamous error and the exiled martyr. I was at the infamous 1998 preliminary final against Canterbury. This game ranks as runner-up for the memory most likely to make an Eels fan consider defenestration. After 12 years in the wilderness following their 1986 premiership, Parra were contenders again, and led old enemy Canterbury 18-2 with 11 minutes to go in the preliminary final. My father, brother and I were already discussing how we’d secure grand final tickets the following day. It was the first time in my memory that Parramatta were big-match competitive. Unfortunately they were not competitive for the final 11 minutes, in which they allowed 16 unanswered points, and not in extra time, when the Bulldogs ran over the top of them. Google ‘Paul Carige’ to see how that turned out. There are videos. The number-one contender, by the way, is the 2001 Grand Final. I’m not going to ask you to Google that because I can’t bring myself to.
After beating fourth-placed Melbourne that July night we beat second-placed Canterbury, then Cronulla, the Warriors, Newcastle, the Tigers, and Penrith, the win in the penultimate round confirming our place in the finals. We lose heavily to minor premiers St George Illawarra in the final round of the season but beat them on their home ground in the finals the following week – the first eighth-placed team to win in the modern playoff format. We then knock out third-placed Gold Coast and second-placed Canterbury-Bankstown, our traditional rivals, before a crowd of 75,000 raucously partisan fans. Ten wins from 11 games. The last of which, to paraphrase Bankstown boy PJ Keating, is the sweetest victory of all. The answer to my problems is finding a job. What I’ve received instead is a misdirection, the kind of honeyed, pandering, evasive answer one expects from a charismatic politician: it isn’t what I need, and it doesn’t help anything, but it is pretty to hear. My weeks are spent writing job applications and reading – on Mondays or Tuesdays it might be The Brothers Karamazov, but on Thursdays it is Big League and on Friday, the sports lift-out. If this sounds dull that’s because it is, although it suits me fine. Many of those job applications go unread, or at least unanswered. This year I have read more form-response emails than I’ve had meals out of cans. But every week Parramatta nudges a spot up the ladder that’s my pride, my esteem climbing with them.
During the Streak I resume running, for the first time since I was a young teenager. Perhaps I’m inspired, or it’s just a way to pass the time. When I run I push myself to run faster and further, it’s a kind of offering to the football gods. If I’m running on game day, which I generally do, every extra kilometre feels like an affirmation that that day’s game will be a win. (See section five for examples of how pervasive this mindset can get.) Later it sounds quite silly, but at the time these are the only things I have. So I do them well, and with passion. Passion mitigates despondency, the kind of observation no rugby league footballer has ever made. No, my heroes are not smart. Nor are they my heroes, really. But they are passionate young men, and so am I. We are all escapists. They found a way out of reality. I am still looking.
It is 3am on a cold night in September, at the fag-end of a drawn-out winter. People either side of me are snoring or chattering away softly about The Streak. Swirls of vapour lope out the mouth of a thermos. The air reeks of Nescafé, Winfield Blues and cold. Especially cold. Why am I here, camping out on concrete, shivering in tobacco smoke? No, I’m not really asking myself that. I know why I’m here, why we’re all here on a 4°C night with the wind chill driving the temperature towards zero, wiping limpid goop from our upper lips. But we are all happy. Not a single person here would rather be anywhere else. I have nowhere else to be.
I am living on borrowed money, and the worst kind: interest-free and from my parents. Greece had it easy: they were only borrowing from Germany. When you borrow from your parents you pay interest with your dignity. I am using some of my meagre funds not on food, which is overrated, but on tickets to the National Rugby League Grand Final. Food is digested, but glory is forever.
I am quivering in a sleeping bag on the concrete at the entrance to the Parramatta Leagues Club, ninth in line, unable to sleep with cold and thoughts of the week ahead. From inside the swooshing shushing doors wafts the calliope of the poker machines and the chlorine-y odour of the fountain in the lobby.
The Streak has been an amazing thing to be a part of, and even more amazing if you have endured and suffered in years past. This year the Eels might do it, though. They are not burdened by expectations. It is beyond a miracle that we are here – not that I believe in miracles. This is not a story of sustained effort and reward. Something just happened. A two-month flurry of indelible performances at the end of four months of woe has hauled the club out of the morass. The spearhead has been fullback Jarryd Hayne, whose innate audacity on a football field has ratcheted up several hundredfold during this time of reckoning. Before the season it was well publicised that he had found God – and you have to think he was looking in the mirror when he did. Hayne has been performing weekly feats of instinct that make the jaw drop. Literally, your jaw goes slack and you turn to Norv or your sister or whomever is next to you and struggle to make a sound except excited bleating sounds, and when you work out how to speak again you can only ask how in God’s name did he just do that? In round 24 against the Tigers, the Eels leading by two with minutes left, he executes a solo chip-chase-regather-score from 40 metres out that even as you’re watching it live you know will be in highlights reels in ten, 20 years’ time. How in God’s name? Nobody – pundits, fans – can remember anything quite like his string of performances. Which makes you think that this whole magical run, The Streak, is something special. Which automatically burdens the whole thing with expectations, when in the beginning there were absolutely none.
I think this level of obsessing requires a section of its own.
There is a whole meta-level of jinxes, Observer-Effect-type hoodoos (‘Don’t say we’re doing well!’ ‘Don’t talk about next week!’) and frankly obsessive-compulsive rituals when it comes to a winning run in sport. Such practices stem from the fact sport is unpredictable and unknowable and as such the reasons for success are ultimately indecipherable with logic. If a proven methodology is working for you in sales or scientific research than you stick with it; after all, you are a big influence on the outcome. But as a sports fan, you have so little influence and the players you cheer every week only have marginally more. There is a point where skill, fitness and training all cease to be relevant and it comes down to abstract things like chance and will. So if you find that a run of success on the field correlates however tenuously with something you’re doing, you start to believe that thing is imperative to your team’s chances of victory. Well, you don’t believe it – you know how stupid that sounds – but why tempt fate? I suppose for a jobseeker it’s much the same: I can put together what I think is a winning application, but the employer may not be in a good mood when they read it, or they’ve already seen one better, or some pagination quirk means it doesn’t load up the way I intended, or it’s one of those internal hires where they already have the candidate lined up and are just going through the formalities. So I cross my fingers and kiss an application before I mail it off. Why would I do that? Well, why not? A rational person can disabuse himself and others of concepts like superstition and destiny, but not where they apply to sport. He can know it is batty to think the outcome of a game depends on what socks he’s wearing but, all the same, just in case, he should probably just wear those socks. And anyway, if he follows sport, it follows that he is not a wholly rational person. Especially if he follows Parramatta. He most likely has lucky blue-and-gold underwear. And lucky shoes.
There is nothing like Grand Final day. It’s a daylong celebration of celebration. You celebrate when you wake up, if you managed to get any sleep. You celebrate over breakfast. You celebrate in the shower and you celebrate as you dress. Lucky socks and underwear? Check. Everything is portentous. You do as we do and trek across town to the leagues club, to down a few beers at an unbeerly hour and celebrate with your blue-and-gold kinfolk as you watch the reserves. The rain that has been mizzling all weekend looks to be easing off – that’s cause for celebration! Midday – who’s for another? You board a train to the ground and sit pensively. Not much celebration seems to happen here. You arrive at Homebush, have another few plastic-cup beers outside and celebrate. Win or lose, the season ends today, so whatever excitement or dread you’re feeling won’t matter much in about eight hours … so you enjoy it to your maximum capacity, enjoy the final few hours of not-knowing. It could end well, it could end badly, but it will end. The memory will either be happy or wretched. You go inside the stadium, locate your seats and celebrate the fact you’re finally here. The place is holding over 80,000 people, and around 70,000 are Eels fans. It feels like one big celebration of the blue and gold. Everyone is in a fantastic mood. A celebratory mood. You celebrate right up until the opening whistle, when you instantly turn into a column of gelatinous nerves.
The core group that watched the Titans game that July night has swelled in number. I managed to get eight tickets, and several others have missed out. Few have been able to resist the power of The Streak.
We all have our different ways of dealing with the big-game stress.
Murray yells ‘bullshit!’ and ‘oh come on!’ a lot.
Nina expands on this slightly, accusing the referees with an unnatural shriek of unconscionable oversights and inherent bias. Often it just comes out as ‘REEEEFFFF!’
Mel yells encouragement at the players, even if they make a mistake. ‘Go, go, run…oh, you dropped the ball. That’s okay! Chin up! Don’t get sad! Try again!’ This is weird and I’m sure people judge her for it.
Norv cheers on players: ‘Go Hindy! Good hit! Pass it! No, don’t pass it! Hold it!’ He will offer running commentary on the game, in the form of droll one-liners. Norv is pretty much the best person to watch football with, but today I’m not paying much attention to him or anybody else. Unlike almost every game I’ve ever been to, I sit there quietly, muttering entreaties to gods I don’t believe in to get us over the line. I probably promise to read the Bible cover to cover. My hands are clasped and sweaty. I lean right and left in my chair to ride the tackles and urge our men through gaps in the defence. Tackle, tackle. Go. Come on. Come on.
The gods are not listening, or I just have the wrong effing gods, because at halftime it’s 10–0 and we just keep dropping the effing ball. The mood is very flat. No celebrations any more. My mind has already turned, as some third-rate band entertains us at halftime in the Grand Final, to eulogising The Streak. We had a good run. To reach this point was unthinkable two months ago. I should have known when I saw the weather forecast. The Streak was built on a foundation of skilful, expansive football that collapses in the wet like papier-mâché. It was an omen. I should be happy just to have reached this point. But I keep thinking of a newspaper front page I saw while walking to the train station: PARRA TO END 22 YEARS OF HEARTBREAK. Twenty-two years, the greater part of my life. Is that what I’m upset about? Or is it that tomorrow I have to go back to looking for a job? Who knows when either drought will end? In just over 40 minutes Parra will have lost another big game and I will still be unemployed. The sky looks like I feel. Let it rain. What does it matter any more?
The definition of a fool’s errand is writing an essay about sport in an Australian literary journal. Our literary and cultural people (this seems to be a distinctly Sydney thing) tend not to like sport. In America, for example, many notable authors, directors and actors love sport and have no shame in admitting it. Here artists tend to look on sport as an oddity, or set themselves in opposition to it. Sport makes no sense. It’s a waste of time. These are both good points. But following sport only requires the same suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy fiction. A detractor can point to the contrivance and meaningless at the heart of either, but doing so misses the point. What is the point of a book like Slaughterhouse-Five, which in recounting the bombing of Dresden veers between the Second World War, a revenge plot involving lasers, an optometrist’s life in upstate New York and a human zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore? A superficial reading of the scantest plot summary could glean all that. But the novel is the quintessential account of the daze of survivors, the daze of a lifetime that does not wash off. It’s glib to say, but that’s kind of like sports fandom: the daze of a lifetime. I can recall obscure score-lines and scorers from before I was born, but I struggle to remember to pay bills on time. I bound in between vivid memories of matches like Billy Pilgrim. Following sport – and writing – are my ways of getting by. Too bad neither pays the mortgage.
You can look at sport and see a bunch of grown men chasing a ball around, or the potential for corrupt betting practices, or an excuse just to drink and never grow up … and sure, it’s got all those things going for it. (The latter is a great reason to be a writer, too.) Or, within such a contest, you can enjoy the feats of bodies and wits pushed to the limit, extrapolate from it lessons that will help you live. Be hesitant doing that. The sport-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing contains more than a soupçon of horseshit and should be treated as such. The epigraph at the start of this piece? Horseshit. (Indeed, I believe Karunatilaka intended it that way.) When sport is reflecting life, or presenting simplistic allegories for it, it is doing a bad job of being sport. Sport at its best is escapism: thought-free, unrehearsed popular theatre, and that’s when it best relates to life; when it least reminds us of life – when it shows us just how badly we need escapism. You can be delighted and thrilled and angered and ecstatic, often all within five minutes, and you can throw your arm around your mate or your sister or your father or jump up and down on a plastic chair … or hold your despairing head in your hands and hope the immaculate grass will open up and swallow everything. It’s all so stupid, but it works. On the other hand, if you’ve seen the trick at the heart of it – much like if you have your suspension of disbelief in a film ruined by a friend questioning a plot inconsistency – then it’s very hard to un-see it. If you think it’s a pointless sham then it’s beyond the auspices of an essay in a lit mag to win you back. You cannot be won. I’m just glad that I am lost.
So Eric Grothe Jr scores a few minutes into the second half and it’s on. 10–6. Then we let in a simple Greg Inglis try off a swirling bomb, each of the back three trusting the others to catch it. Hope has flickered and guttered in minutes. Melbourne score again and, at 22–6, there seems little possibility of coming back. But then Joel Reddy scores with ten or so minutes to go. 22–12. What a tease. There is no way. Fuifui Moimoi gets tossed the ball and, from 40 metres out, embarks on a fierce, hyperbolic run to the corner and gets across the line carrying two defenders. The on-field referee calls for a video review. Oh gee, I don’t know. I can’t see how he stayed in the field and got that down. Nah, no way. All the Eels fans around me seem convinced, but I know that special brand of delusion. I am staring at replay after replay while the others high five and hug and spill beers over each other. I am pleading under my breath: try, try, try, try…
Green lights. It’s 22–16 and eight minutes left. Around 70,000 people erupt. I guarantee you have never heard a sound like it. Seventy thousand sufferers, sensing the end. The match is a model for our season: the abject start, before roaring home with a wet sail. It starts becoming a destiny thing again, where briefly it had reverted to a reality thing. Melbourne start spilling bombs and handing us field position close to their line. The crowd is on their feet. Dad, who is sadly out of town for the long weekend and should be out of reception, somehow gets a message through to me, riding us home. Little things like that convince the obsessive that it’s bound to happen.
It doesn’t happen.
Watch the clip of Neville Glover’s famed 1976 knock-on on YouTube: he is actually about to be swamped by Manly defenders, and he’s a metre in from the sideline, and the pass is above his head and behind him. But none of this is relevant to a fan looking for a scapegoat. I’m convinced that scapegoating in sport is not entirely about apportioning blame; rather, it’s a chance for a fan to wallow in a defeat a little longer, to revel in martyrdom, to imagine it could have been otherwise and curse the way things turned out, the way things always turn out: disappointingly. When your team wins, after all, what is there left to dread? And yet ultimately it is all dread, everything.
In 2009, Eels fans walk away from the grand final bemoaning the decision by referee Tony Archer to award Melbourne a penalty late in the game for what appeared to be a lost ball by Storm fullback Billy Slater, but was ruled interference in the play-the-ball. Had the call gone the other way, we would have had possession on halfway with minutes on the clock and a chance to level the scores; instead, Melbourne marched up the field and kicked a field goal to put it out of reach. Ask a Parra fan today about that match and they will tell you Tony Archer’s call cost us the game, which is a little rich. We had plenty of chances to level it. But that one pivotal decision allows the fan to think they were robbed, as they always are in life – that things could easily have been better.
Things easily could have been better. In April 2010, the Melbourne Storm club was found to have engineered massive systematic breaches of the salary cap, the mechanism put in place to ensure stronger teams cannot outspend weaker teams and hoard talent. As a result, they were stripped of honours they had won during the period, including the 2009 Premiership. It wasn’t awarded retrospectively to Parramatta. Fans got to relive the disappointment of months earlier, now compounded by the fact our glory was denied us by a team that had been illegally assembled. Who knew if The Streak could have ended a different way, had all things been on the level? Oh well. Nobody said life was fair.
As acclaimed documentary maker and lifetime Boston Red Sox fan Alex Gibney says in his film Catching Hell – about an infamous incident of scapegoating involving another losing team I support, baseball’s Chicago Cubs (Google ‘Steve Bartman’ to see how that turned out) – ‘all of life’s disappointments – a lousy job, a bad marriage, a terrible accident, why isn’t life better? – are all confirmed when [one’s team] lose.’ A win merely conceals the essence of life, the way any happy thing does. And where one writes to understand disappointments, one watches sport to sublimate them. Sport can allow a benighted heart to soar, but in doing so it tricks that heart into forgetting momentarily that it will more often than not be broken, thwarted, or misled. So there are life lessons in sport after all. Months later I do find a job, and for a while I’m ecstatic and swear to never take employment for granted again, but ultimately it’s just a job. And a job is a disappointment, in one way or another. Season after season, from 2010 to now, Parramatta continues to be a disappointment. Supporting Parramatta is an education in disappointment. But every week there is a game, a chance to feel elated again, however briefly, and to get by. I don’t really need to win. I just need to live.